For the past six months I have been working on a challenging yet fascinating one-year conservation research fellowship at The National Archives on transparent papers. Today I’d like to tell you how readers at The National Archives are providing valuable information for this project via the Readers’ Transparent Paper Survey.
Questionnaires and the questionnaire collection box in the Document Reading Room for the Readers' Transparent Paper Survey
For the purposes of my project, transparent papers are defined as those papers for which transparency was vital for its intended role. For example, maps, overlays, copies of artistic designs, and engineering or architectural plans are relevant while pages of text on thin, and consequently transparent, paper are not.
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The conservation of MH 47 in preparation for digitisation has been an intriguing and engaging experience due to the nature of the content and variety of paper-based materials within this group of records. The records are primary sources regarding conscientious objectors and appeals of exemption for the First World War.
Repairing a MH 47 record
While the majority of the records are standard forms of the Middlesex Appeal Tribunal, the group also includes minute volumes and hand written letters and photographs submitted by applicants as evidence of their claim. Thanks to the exceptional efforts of volunteers, the forms and letters pertaining to the appeal of each individual applicant have been sorted and placed in separate folders; this enables greater ease of handling, increased efficiency in completing conservation treatments and appropriate housing for long-term storage after digitisation.
Every morning when I turn on my computer, one of the first things I fire up is our environmental monitoring software so I can have a look at the temperature and relative humidity (RH) across our storage areas.
Screenshot of environmental monitoring data
Every institution caring for any kind of cultural heritage collections makes it a priority to monitor environmental conditions such as temperature and RH (an expression of the amount of moisture in the air) where their collection is stored or displayed. This is because incorrect temperature or RH (too high or too low) can cause or accelerate the breakdown of materials, not only the paper and parchment support of documents but also other materials important to the portrayal of information, such as inks and the dyes used in colour photographic prints.
Monitoring environmental conditions has got to be, on the surface, one of the least interesting or celebrated parts of a conservator’s job, since it requires looking through and assessing long lists of numbers (we have over 180 different sensors in our storage areas), however, this kind of in-depth monitoring has proven truly invaluable to us here at The National Archives. We not only keep track of existing environmental conditions, but also collect data that will enable retrospective analysis. This data allows us to develop a better understanding of our building here at Kew so we can provide the best preservation environment possible for our records while at the same time ensuring that our solutions are sustainable. I’ve highlighted a couple of the projects that we’ve been busy with over the last few years below, including links to papers we’ve written that go into greater detail about the specifics of what we’ve done. Continue reading »
Collection Care is often about finding solutions to difficult problems and I addressed this theme in my last post when I talked about a project currently underway treating a particular series of photographs. Well, this problem-solving approach applies not only to our conservation treatments of the collection, but also to how we deal with things on a large scale – how we manage our collection.
What is in all the boxes?
One of the big questions we’ve grappled with as part of this project has been: what do we have? Oh, we know we have 11 million entries on Discovery, 13,000 series of records, etc. But to effectively manage the risks to our physical collection we need to know what types of materials we’re dealing with and how many of each we have. Tackling this question required extensive data gathering and some visual ingenuity.
As a conservator, my favourite archival material has always been photographs. There’s just something magical about photography’s mixture of chemistry and artistry that particularly captures my imagination. Therefore, I’d like to share one of the photographic projects we’re tackling in the Collection Care studio.
Recently, as one of our large, ongoing projects, we’ve been conserving and re-housing part of the COPY series. The COPY series comes from the Copyright Office at Stationer’s Hall and contains the forms of application for registration of proprietorship from 1837-1912 of different artistic, commercial or literary categories, one of which is photographs. Attached to most of the forms submitted are one or more photographic prints, providing a representation of what was being registered.
Example box from COPY 1 series before re-housing
So here’s our challenge: We have 250 boxes each containing up to 600 forms and there is both physical and chemical deterioration to the forms and photographs.
The forms are housed in over-stuffed boxes, large photographs are folded to fit in the standard size boxes and handling has meant that the photograph was often bent to read the text on the form. The chemical damage includes colour change to the photographs or the forms due to adhesives used to secure the photographs to the forms, or due to transfer of the image of a photograph on to a paper form it has been in contact with. Continue reading »
Did you know there are beakers and high-tech equipment for scientific analysis here at The National Archives?
I know that the image of a scientific laboratory is quite at odds with the images that normally pop into your head when you hear the word ‘archive’, but all the same they are vital to the work that conservators undertake here every day.
Our conservation lab provides the facilities for us to evaluate materials for use in conservation, to prepare materials for use in conservation treatments and to carry out those conservation treatments that require the use of chemicals in a safe environment. To give you a little taste of the many things we do in the lab, here are a couple of examples of some of the material testing we’ve been up to lately:
Should we replace those old map folders?
Beakers of paper samples for pH testing
As part of making a case for a re-housing project, one of our conservators is pH testing both the existing map folder materials and the new material she suggests it is replaced with. This will enable her to quantify the benefits of the project. If the current material is significantly acidic, and the new material shows an alkaline buffer, it can help give a justification for her choices in the project.
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On your visit to The National Archives, you get your reader’s ticket to order up the documents you are interested in seeing but, after entering the document references into Discovery, a document comes up as ‘unfit for production’. So, you wonder, what does that mean?
Unfit document - Detail of damage to an unfit document
Items designated ‘unfit for production’ are in such vulnerable physical condition that producing them would present a risk to the document – unfit documents could be extremely fragile, they could be blocked (all the pages stuck together in a volume or a roll), or perhaps they could be damaged by mould. These are the documents that, when you open the box, you immediately jump to put the top back on and quickly hide it at the bottom of the pile, hoping that it will miraculously disappear!
Colossus electronic digital computer, 1943 (Catalogue ref: FO 850/234)
I hope by now that you’re starting to get the idea that The National Archives is a bit of a dark horse when it comes to innovating in technology. We have, as far as I can tell, won more technology awards for more separate projects than anyone in the public sector except for the NHS, and we’re a little smaller. This culminated in a Queen’s Award for Enterprise and Innovation last year for our digital preservation technologies across all sectors and a public sector digital award for legislation.gov.uk. It doesn’t stop there – we also innovate in education, and the physical preservation of our collection, saving a lot of energy in the process.
So I thought it might be interesting to describe my view on our approach. I’ll look at technology, cost, and culture.
Think for a minute about your last visit to a museum.
Now, can you picture what one of the display cases looked like?
I’m guessing you probably can’t. I imagine most people never even consider the box displaying their favourite piece of the past. And that’s good, because it means someone’s done a good job. The idea is for the objects displayed to be the centre of attention and for the display case to fade into the background; to not be memorable.
I have to admit to spending a fair amount of time actually looking at display cases when I visit museums these days. I’m always interested to see how others are displaying objects, and the technology and materials they are using. It’s just like back in the days when I used to sell window blinds; whenever I walked into a room the blinds were always the first thing I noticed!
The Collection Care Department manages many aspects of The National Archives’ on site museum including the display cases. It’s not as simple as just setting up the document, locking the case, walking away and forgetting about it for a few months. We spend a good amount of time behind the scenes maintaining our cases. For some display cases, this means we have to do regular maintenance work on machines that control the relative humidity, an important agent of deterioration. Other display cases use a passive means to buffer changes in relative humidity. These contain materials like silica gel that require regular changing and recharging to be effective. Then we need to monitor the microenvironment we’ve created to ensure the cases continue to provide suitable environmental conditions for the different types of records we’ve got on display. We also test the cases to make sure they are airtight to protect the documents on display from pollutants such as dust.
Considering the word ‘digital’ makes up one third of my job title, you might consider it an oversight to have not used it once in my last blog entry. That may be an indication of variety in work – or perhaps forgetfulness – but I will make up for that today when I consider the union and mutually-beneficial relationship between open data and the archiving of datasets.
A colleague recently asked me what a dataset is. This is not necessarily as simple a question as it may appear: I side-stepped. I think the answer really lies in the term ‘structured data’; namely that the text of an email could not necessarily be termed a dataset, but a table in a PDF, a CSV (Comma-Separated Values) file, or an XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) file could. Also, a dataset can be analysed quantitatively, and is not a collection of different electronic files, like a database. However, the discussion rages and the terminology is so uncertain that the Government has even consulted on the word itself.